Sousa: Initiation to tele nation
March 25, 2014
At the counter of the renowned gear store Ute Mountaineer, former snowboarder-turned-tele-pro Nathan watched as I yanked on a pair of lime-green boots, seemingly decorated with accordions.
"How do the bellows feel?" he asked helpfully.
I replied with a surprised stare. Bellows?
"I'm going to give you skis that will release."
"Thanks!" I leaned into some preparatory lunges at the counter, apparently frightening the woman behind me, who escaped immediately.
"Your legs are probably going to be sore," Nathan warned. He demonstrated the correct stance, which required more flexibility than I have in my entire body.
"Unfortunately, we don't have skis that release in your size." Nathan handed me a wide, colorful, intimidating-looking pair of skis and grinned with a sense of shared stoke. "So be careful."
I woke up to a sky spitting snowflakes. Taking no chances, I wore my purple jacket to ensure a free parking spot (hereby known as the Purple Jacket Caper). Deep in the Highlands garage, a Colorado license plate urged, BE BOLD. An omen, I wondered? What did I really know about the sport? Guys from Tele Nation sported beards down their knees, women twisted at least one dreadlock, and both spoke in prophetic phrases about "freeing the heel" while rolling all-natural cigarettes on the gondola.
I couldn't find my instructor. I sat down alone in the Highlands ticket lobby like a lost child at the supermarket. At least I looked the part, with my baggy boarding gear and cool poles.
"You Brian?" Instantly, instructor Andy Putnam was both mellow and intense. "We don't need to go to Buttermilk, right?"
"Um, no?" Meaning — can we please go to Buttermilk?
"I mean, you know how to alpine?"
Is that an actual verb for the act of skiing? "Well, I'm not good at it." Above us, the sky darkened, the snow beating down.
Andy dropped his skis in front of the lift. "Hardest part," he said, "will be putting the skis on."
I scoffed. Five minutes later, I was on my knees in front of my skis, begging them to be more understanding.
While flying Exhibition, I filled Andy in on my two seasons as a snowboard instructor; he told me he'd been tele-teaching since 1986. A little later research reveals that telemark skiing originated in Norway in the 1860s, proving that Norway is, in fact, good for something.
We cruised. My lightweight planks floated through the fresh, I worked my pole-plants with passion, and a feeling of pride welled up. Maybe this was why people freed the heel! Just two bros carving fresh tracks with funky skis. "All right," Andy said. "So I think we're ready to actually start — telemarking."
We started with the "shuffle," which felt entirely unnatural: lifting our heels on a cat track in some sort of '80s dance step. Then we commenced side-slipping, in the low-down tele-stance, up on the ball of one foot, and while I could edge on my right side, when I went left, I wound up drifting across the hill backward.
On the next run, Andy, who also confessed to being a snowboarder, introduced the J-turn. "Use your toes like a claw," he advised, which made no sense until I tried it. After a few shaky slides, I nailed it, feeling an entirely new sense of balance and traction. And that's when I realized I was learning, rapidly. There was no lecture, just a casual progression of skills while we talked guitars.
"You're a great teacher," I remarked, thinking about my last seven years as a writing instructor, both rewarding and frustrating.
"Thanks. So, your poles are way too small," Andy replied, laughing. "You might work on that."
The next series of runs was a smorgasbord of slipping, turning and lunging. My awkward forays across the hill were greeted with comments such as, "You're contorting yourself," "Now you're just going switch," and the classic, "Nice recovery! I thought you were going to flip over!"
After discovering I was actually forgetting which leg to bend — "You're a bit dyslexic," is how Andy diplomatically described it — it happened: I fell into a rhythm and I was making turns! Andy passed me with some metallic applause from his poles. "You're tele-ing!"
I could see it now: I'd grow a bushy red beard, don some tighter pants, hang a couple of carabiners from my backpack — my reverie was broken by a woman who randomly hugged me in the lift line. "I'm a snowboarder," I explained, and she grew more animated. "A reformed snowboarder!" she shouted. "Hooray!"
Reformed? Or reborn? There's a certain fear that accompanies walking the plank for the first time: new muscles used, bright neurons firing, multiple mistakes made. It's good for us to push ourselves in fresh ways and remember the novices we used to be. Unknowingly, we gain perspective and maybe discover that the things holding us back are just alpine bindings waiting to be freed.
I thought about all of this as I strolled back through town, skis on my back, quads groaning, feeling extremely extreme.
What else did I learn? Snowboarders make the best instructors, Andy should get a raise, and Tele Nation is one hell of a place to be. I hope I get to go back someday.
Brian Sousa appears every other Sunday in The Aspen Times. Reach him at email@example.com.